In the old days, an intranet -- that is, a private computer network inside an organization as opposed to the Internet which is a network between organizations -- was often reserved for large corporations with hundreds or thousands of employees. With advances in technology and the advent of virtual offices and cloud computing, that’s changing. Even very small businesses can benefit from having an intranet for sharing and collaborating with employees and clients.
Think of an intranet as your own private portal where authorized users can log in and share calendars and appointments, upload documents, make comments and changes to specific projects and access reference material or guidelines. This can greatly increase productivity and limit the hurdles of project management -- especially if you have users in many different locations.
Small businesses can create their own intranets using either hosted services through a provider or hosting the software themselves on a web server. Both options offer their own benefits depending on your business size and IT needs.
Some of my favorite intranet and collaboration toolsets include:
Google Sites -- Google Sites is both easy to set up and use. You can create specific project pages, host calendars, integrate Google Docs and easily invite new members to join specific sections on your site. As an intranet solution, Google Sites isn’t as advanced as some other options but its integration with Google’s existing services makes it worth a mention.
Box.net -- For the last 12 months, Box.net has been actively positioning itself as a lower-cost alternative to Microsoft’s SharePoint. The service offers users the ability to store documents on Box.net’s service for easy editing -- either directly from Box.net or via your favorite productivity application. You have full search access to documents and comments stored on Box.net, granular permissions for team members and there is a great mobile application for accessing and editing documents from your iPhone or BlackBerry. Business plans for three or more users cost $15 a month per user, though anyone can sign up for a free Lite account to get a feel for the system.
Open Atrium -- Open Atrium is a free open source intranet-in-a-box solution designed to run on your own web server. Open Atrium includes tools to share documents and calendars, create group blogs or wikis and have user-to-user communication. The system is extremely easy to use for end-users and very robust in its offerings.
If you frequently find yourself frustrated with the limitations of e-mail and want a way to increase productivity -- while also offering easy ways to reference past projects and information, an intranet might just be the next tool your small business needs to adopt.